Win the Warm-Up! - How to Start Confidently.

by Adrian Coles, Tennis Canada Coach 3

August 2023

Experienced competitors follow a routine to avoid common mistakes that can ruin the chances of playing your best.

Are you one of the growing number of players wanting to get more competitive with your tennis? Do you want to move on from pick-up games to playing league or team matches, or even entering local or provincial events?

'The Competitive Edge' by lifelong player and coach Adrian Coles, features easy to digest tips and strategies to help keen recreational competitors play smarter. Improving stroke technique certainly helps but that requires a great deal of deliberate practice. A quicker way is to sharpen tactical skills whilst still using the strokes you've already got! He will cover topics often overlooked or even glossed over in on court instruction when hitting lots of balls is what is appreciated most.

This ONTENNIS exclusive series is a must-read for anyone who plays tennis at the recreational level and is interested in optimizing their match-play competitive experience. To access the other stories in the series, visit

The ONTENNIS Competitive Edge Series, Part 4:

Win the Warm-Up! - How to Start Confidently!

So, you’re going to play a competitive match, a bit more pressure than your usual casual pick-up game! Will you feel ready to compete at the end of the warm-up? Unless you are playing with an umpire who calls 'Time' the match warm-up could become 15 minutes of aimless hitting until your opponent decides to start play. If you want to win the match you first have to “Win the Warm-Up!” Experienced competitors follow a routine to avoid common mistakes that can ruin the chances of playing your best.

Start your warmup by hitting slow and under control. Make as few errors as possible.

Start by hitting slower.

The number one mistake I have seen over the years is players making too many errors. This is usually because players are trying to hit shots at the speed they confidently hit at the end of their last game! Top players start by hitting slower, under control, until they get the feel of the ball and speed of the court. This is particularly true if new balls are used. Making fewer errors sends a message to your opponent that they will have to do more than rely on your errors to win points. And it will make you feel more confident that you might play well today! Resist the temptation to run down difficult balls, or to try to keep the rally going by struggling to hit an “out” ball. An unscrupulous opponent may even give you difficult balls to sabotage your warm-up! Doing this increases the possibility of confidence draining errors! Simply stop the ball and self-feed to restart the rally.

Make a full “unit turn”.

Use the dropped ball self-feed to remind yourself to make a full 'unit turn', which is not a natural thing to do outside the court. Tennis is a “sideways game” and most shots are better executed with a good shoulder turn. Sending the ball back with a wrist flick out of the air may look cool but does nothing to reinforce proper technique for your groundstrokes! Aim at least four feet over net to get depth and avoid net errors. Hit at your “control” speed! Check your contact point and hit smoothly. Full shadow swings in dead time are also a useful reminder of good technique.

Be a straight shooter!

Aiming away from your opponent can be appropriate when competing, but a mistake in the warm-up. Aim the ball straight down the middle of the court. By having such a specific target area, you can better judge your timing and contact point. Too late and the ball will veer off to the sidelines. Too soon and the ball will tend to go cross court. Hitting the ball so your opponent cannot return the ball means fewer shots for you to hit!

Time your groundstrokes well.

A very common mistake is spending too much time on groundstrokes, and not enough time on volleys, overheads, and serves. Ten minutes is the usual accepted length of time before you start playing in non-umpired matches. Plan to spend five minutes trading groundstrokes. Then take one minute each at the net for volleys and overheads. Spend the remaining three minutes hitting serves. Players who feel uncomfortable up at the net tend to take fewer practice volleys and overheads which, of course, sends a loud message to their opponents! Show confidence up at the net by standing close enough to make every volley easier! Hitting overheads help warm up your service motion, as do shadow swings.

Serve from both sides.

Practice from both sides, deuce and ad, and hit second serves as well. Most players don't hit enough practice serves. Don't hit just first serves in the warm up. Better to start with controlled second serves to build confidence. And hit enough from both sides. It is good to hit a few returns off their practice serves to get a feel for their speed and spin, but not so many so as to reduce the time available for your own practice serves!

In conclusion, if you take charge of the warm-up, you will be in a better position to get off to a fast start and you will be more ready to play, which might make all the difference in a close contest!


Adrian Coles, Tennis Canada Coach 3 and Tennis Analytics Certified Technical Analyst, brings a wide variety of perspectives to his new series 'The Competitive Edge' based on his decades of involvement in playing, coaching and managing. His success as a top British junior player, plus his time as the touring coach for his world ranked daughter, enable him to offer useful insights to players aspiring to compete in local, provincial or national events. Having witnessed the evolution of the game from the beginnings of Open Tennis to its current iteration, Adrian is familiar with many different styles of play giving options to players of different ages, interest levels and abilities. His passion is to help as many players as possible get the most out of this wonderful sport of a lifetime.

Do you have a favourite tip you would like to share, or a topic you would like us to cover? Please let us know via email at:, and don’t forget to practice your match play! “Good Luck”.